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Will These Grim Times Pass Over?

With Passover upon us, it is fair to ask: What is the quality of this freedom Jews are now left with? Have we traded in one bondage for another?
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April 4, 2023
SEAN GLADWELL/Elena Malgina/Getty Images

Another year lacking in levity, and soon another unleavened Passover will be behind us, too. The calendar has become a cruel joke of anti-climactic moments.

Three years ago, Passover coincided with the early days of a pandemic. Millenia later, a new plague had made a laughingstock out of locusts. This modern-day outbreak was especially harsh. The Angel of Death visited not first-born Egyptians, but people of all religions and nationalities, especially the elderly and those with co-morbidities and pulmonary problems. The bread of affliction became an omen of far more severe deprivations. (Ironically, there was a matzo shortage.)

Suddenly, it was not just bread that wouldn’t rise. Nearly everything stood motionless.

For a people that once made a mad-dash for Mount Sinai, Jews, like everyone else, were now hostages in their own homes. Unable to travel to family Seder tables, they became slaves to Zoom and Netflix, a bondage dependent on browsing and bandwidth.

This year’s Passover ushers in a new normal—a recovery period that adapted, improbably, to the massive social upheavals of these contagious times: variants and vaccines, riots associated with the January 6th insurrection and Black Lives Matter, the politics of identity with its humorless aversion to free speech, a war in Ukraine, an Afghanistan withdrawal, a reversal of abortion rights, and now a Donald Trump indictment.

It has been a time period inimical to balance and proportion. What we are receiving is mostly bad news, with little to celebrate. Consensus is a moon shot. In America, former President Trump is either a menace or a martyr. In Israel, the nation is either on the brink of authoritarianism or merely trying to better calibrate its checks and balances.

No breakthroughs, nothing visionary or sublime. Just more streaming channels. Even the COVID vaccine is no longer immune from doubt. Naysayers multiply. Tony Fauci is building a foxhole as a new summer home. Our first foray into artificial intelligence has taken a time out, too.

With rising inflation and a deflated future, spiking crime and mass shootings, an anemic Biden presidency and the ominous ill-tidings of a Chinese-Russian alliance, there are many reasons to take exception to American exceptionalism. And with all these stay-at-home jobs, we no longer know how to socialize, or to engage in normal mating rituals, face-to-face.

In short, we can never go back to the way things once were. And this year, especially, with all that has happened and not happened, it feels as though the world has passed over Passover. The Exodus of the ancient Hebrews from Egypt is wholly unfamiliar to most people. Hardly anyone associates the Pyramids with the slave labor supplied by Jews. (Yes, there are doubters here, too.)

It would come as a complete shock to the hectoring woke, but the Jews of the Bible are the original enslaved persons of color. Try convincing anyone on a college campus, or in an inner-city public high school, that Jews are neither all white nor all privileged. Better yet, try persuading the Black Hebrew Israelites that they are not the authentic descendants of biblical Jewry. They take it on faith that the Chosen People refers to them, and that white Jews are nothing but imposters who have pilfered the title.

More disturbingly, it’s not clear whether Passover itself is meaningful at all to Jews these days. Many may simply take a pass on the celebration. After all, Jews have become increasingly reluctant to flaunt their identity at the precise moment when receptivity to ethnic, racial and sexual difference has never been more accepted.

It’s the Passover paradox: a holiday ostensibly associated with Jewish liberation now must contend with an era when Jews seem to be less free—in spite of all the canards about Jewish cultural power.

It’s the Passover paradox: a holiday ostensibly associated with Jewish liberation now must contend with an era when Jews seem to be less free—in spite of all the canards about Jewish cultural power.

Think I am exaggerating? Given the global incidence of antisemitic violence, many Jews who are not Hasidic are afraid to wear any sartorial insignia outing them as Jews. These days, sightings of burkas in secular settings denote religious tolerance; a yarmulka, however, is an invitation to rumble. In Europe, Jews know to avoid the matches of certain soccer teams, like Holland’s Ajax, where drunken Jew-haters enjoy the comradery more than the game itself.

And, of course, Jews by and large don’t feel free to voice support for Israel. Certainly not on campus, or on mainstream media, or at a Reform Synagogue, or even at far too many Shabbat dinners that devolve into Israel bashing long before the traditional benching.

Jewish presence in the Democratic Party is becoming more uncomfortable, especially if having a Jewish identity or conscience is important. Israel is no longer a bi-partisan prerogative. For the first time, polling shows that Democrats are now more sympathetic to Palestinians than to Israelis. Jewish political leaders who consider themselves liberals—either elected or those who lead legacy organizations—such as they are, have made things worse.

Bernie Sanders is the poster-boy for Jewish betrayal. Other Jewish lawmakers are so fearful of losing their seats to someone to their left, they’ll make common cause, and recite any slander with any progressive who promises an endorsement.

And, of course, it’s much more dire for the Jews of Europe—especially in Paris, London, Brussels and Stockholm. The appalling indifference that American Jews have toward this Diaspora in distress, or perhaps the overall ignorance to their plight, is a plague unto itself.

So, with Passover upon us, it is fair to ask: What is the quality of this freedom Jews are now left with? Have we traded in one bondage for another? Remaining afraid and threatened in a continuously hostile world, after thousands of years of persecution, is hardly an achievement. Surely, Moses had more favorable expectations. Instead, cynicism and paranoia run rampant. Perhaps today’s Jews might have looked even more skeptically at Moses’ signs and wonders. “Let my people go!” But to where? Will the plagues follow? Will all the seas part, or just the Red one? With hindsight, many might say: “If this is liberation, take me back to Sinai. And can I buy a Golden Calf on Amazon?”

Don’t be surprised when you open the door to welcome Elijah into your home. This time he might actually be visible, and decline to step inside.


Thane Rosenbaum is a novelist, essayist, law professor and Distinguished University Professor at Touro University, where he directs the Forum on Life, Culture & Society. He is the legal analyst for CBS News Radio. His most recent book is titled “Saving Free Speech … From Itself.”

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